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Conservation and Society
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Conservation and Society
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Year : 2008  |  Volume : 6  |  Issue : 2  |  Page : 202-203

Moving the Maasai: A Colonial Misadventure

Department of History, Memorial University, Newfoundland, Canada

Correspondence Address:
Chris Youe
Department of History, Memorial University, Newfoundland
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Date of Web Publication26-Jun-2009

How to cite this article:
Youe C. Moving the Maasai: A Colonial Misadventure. Conservat Soc 2008;6:202-3

How to cite this URL:
Youe C. Moving the Maasai: A Colonial Misadventure. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2008 [cited 2020 May 25];6:202-3. Available from: http://www.conservationandsociety.org/text.asp?2008/6/2/202/55779

Lotte Hughes. Moving the Maasai: A Colonial Misadventure. Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, UK; St Antony's College, Oxford Series, UK. 2006. xix+238 pp. GBP 55 (Hardcover). ISBN 1-4039-9661-X.

This is an exceptional book. While the contours of the two Maasai moves in Kenya-1904 and 1911-have been traced in several colonial histories, this is the first work to use oral history, a remarkable achievement as a century has elapsed since the Maasai were shunted into reserves to make way for white settlers. The author, a former journalist, has reworked her Oxford Ph.D. dissertation to deliver a lively, engaging and erudite account of this colonial tragedy. She interviewed Maasai elders who 'were literally on their deathbeds,' and she wonders if her informants were 'telling the "truth" or having a laugh at my expense' (p. 10). She is alert to the pitfalls of her methodology and the constraints of circumstance (the current Maasai claim for reparations arising from the stolen lands). The result, though, is the most thorough study to date (the first book-length monograph) of the moves; one that pries open both sides of the coloniser-colonised nexus and one that gets to grips with the environmental consequences of resettlement.

Hughes' sympathies are clearly with the Maasai. The book is explicitly dedicated 'to the Maasai, and to Norman Leys [one of the fiercest critics of British colonialism in east Africa].' The author, who teaches African Arts and Cultures at Britain's Open University, is also the author of The No-Nonsense Guide to Indigenous Peoples [1] which features the silhouette of a Maasai herder on the cover. Lotte Hughes knows much about her subjects, about culture contact, about environmental issues and about the search for justice. It is a blend that privileges African agency without homogenising colonialism.

What are the facts? Shortly after the first wave of European settlement in 1903, Africans in the highlands of what was then the British East Africa Protectorate were forced into reserves. This was an ad hoc process rather than a systematic attempt at segregation; many of the socalled 'tribal' lands were not gazetted or made official until the 1920s. The Maasai were one of the first groups to be relocated, in 1904, under the terms of an agreement that was supposed to be a final settlement. Many Maasai (as with many other Africans in Kenya) also worked on the land of the whites as squatters. Seven years after the 1904 move, the reserve Maasai were forced to move again so that incoming whites could appropriate the 'sweet' lands of the Laikipia plateau. In 1913, using the legal channels opened up by the establishment of a colonial state, the Maasai launched a court challenge to the second move. In a convoluted piece of legalistic acrobatics, the Maasai were deemed to be neither subjects nor citizens of the colonial state, although under the Proctectorate they were 'British protected persons'; in the words of two legal scholars cited in the book: 'a British protected person is protected against everyone except the British' (p. 98). For the rest of the colonial period (another 50 years) the claim lay dormant. Hughes notes that the court case itself did not resonate with the Maasai population in general (pp. 103-104), at least not at the time of the case (the book does not venture much beyond the early colonial period). It was not until the new millennium that the Maasai case was revived, with lawyers readying themselves for a legal battle with their formal colonial masters as well as the independent Kenyan state, the latter accused of complicity in not overturning the land alienation. Hughes writes that 'the plaintiffs intend to use my historical evidence in an attempt to prove that an injustice was perpetrated, since no one else had previously gathered as much material on the subject, both oral and archival' (p. xiv). Since those words were written the Maasai claim has met with outright rejection; realpolitik trumps historical evidence.

The author is concerned as much with perceptions and beliefs as in finding out 'what actually happened' (p. 8). Such an approach is justified; perceptions are an important dynamic of historical development and absolute truth is an impossibility. Yet perceptions operate on many levels: individual attitudes/responses to particular events (which Hughes covers thoroughly with her oral histories); next, and not totally separate from the former, the mentalités derived from custom and culture; and beliefs shaped by one's class or status. In the second category (mentalités), Hughes offers insight into the importance of the coloniser/colonised division. She does not see 'scientific evidence' (for the 'truth' about ecological impact) as unproblematic:

… the search for scientific evidence is… an unsatisfactory exercise, in part because early scientific data does not exist, and because the exercise involves comparing like with unlike: to put it crudely, a Western scientific view of disease which is rooted in diagnostics and laboratory experiments, versus a more holistic indigenous view which regards 'disease' as a natural part of life (p. 107).

My criticism is levelled at the third set of perceptions. Land alienation, especially the privatisation of land in post-colonial Kenya, has meant the dispossession of Maasai by other Maasai. Focusing on ethnicity (ethnic 'perceptions') or recounting individual beliefs essentially omits the class and gender dimensions or divisions within Maasai society. Notwithstanding this shortcoming, this is a groundbreaking, thoroughly researched investigation. There are some minor criticisms. Hughes calls Winston Churchill a 'junior Colonial Office [CO] minister' (p. 39) which is hardly an apt description of the second highest ranked political position at the CO: Under Secretary of State. She states that Percy Girouard, the 'offending governor' behind the 1911 move, attended Britain's Royal Military College (RMC), but RMC is a Canadian institution, which happens to have a collection of Girouard papers. It is unlikely that those papers would have yielded much, if anything, on the Maasai move, but it is surprising that Hughes has no reference to Anthony Kirk-Greene's substantial piece on Girouard in African Affairs [2]. This is surprising because the author funded her research in part with proceeds from the Kirk-Greene Travel Fund, and this book is in the St. Anthony's series, of the Oxford College which has been Antony Kirk-Greene's academic home for many years.

In the final analysis, this book is a superb rendering of the political, cultural and environmental history of colonialism and the Maasai moves. It is a history that still resonates. The Maasai 'still talk with passion about its [the second move's] effects on the health of humans and herds' (p. 105). The Maa word for cattle is the same as the Maa word for people; the Maa word for East Coast Fever (cattle disease) is identical to that for malaria (in humans). The Maasai refer to the forced removals of the last century as moving from the 'sweet' to the 'bitter', with 'sweet' meaning not only lush pasturage but social harmony. This connectedness between humanity and the environment is an aspect of Maasai culture that the British colonialists could not fathom, but which, thankfully, Lotte Hughes has revealed.

   References Top

1.Hughes, L. 2003. The No-Nonsense Guide to Indigenous Peoples. New Internationalist Publications, Verso Books, London, UK.  Back to cited text no. 1      
2.Girouard, P. 1984. Canada in Africa: Sir Percy Girouard, Neglected Colonial Governor. African Affairs 83(331): 207-239.  Back to cited text no. 2      


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